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First shots of the Pacific War were fired at Kota Bharu, not Pearl Harbour

When it comes to the Pacific War, most people believe that the first shots that began it all was Pearl Harbour.

Little do most people know that the first attack actually took place in Kota Bharu, the capital of Malaysian state of Kelantan, as part of the Japanese invasion of Malaya.

The Japanese landed at Kota Bahru at 12.25 am on Monday, Dec 8, 1941 and first attacked Pearl Harbour at 8am on Dec 7, 1941 (local times).

Are you sure Kota Bahru was the first to be attacked? You ask, as you read the dates.

Due to Malaya and Hawaii being on the opposite sides of the International Date Line, the Japanese actually launched its assault on Kota Bharu about 1 hour and 35 minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese attack on Kota Bharu and the whole of Malaya

Now the next question is why Malaya?

According to Australian War Memorial, Malaya was a key British colony prior to Second World War (WWII).

It was the source of large quantities of natural resources, particularly tin and rubber. Furthermore, it strategically provided a large defensive barrier to any landward advance on Singapore and its naval base.

The island was the cornerstone of British power in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Knowing the importance of Malaya, the Japanese began planning for an invasion as early as October 1940.

One local survivor told the Japan Times in 2009 that he remembered one particular high-ranking officer widely known as Kawasaki.

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Before the war, the locals used to see him riding a bicycle around the villagers selling shrimp rice crackers and speaking fluent Malay. As it turned out, ‘Kawasaki’ was a high-ranking officer who was in-charge of the troops in Kota Bahru.

The first troop against the Japanese was the British Indian Army

When the Imperial Japanese Army first landed at Padang Pak Amat beach, they were ‘greeted’ by the British Indian Army.

Local survivors heard the Indian soldiers were singing Hindi film songs on the beachfront when they saw Japanese landing craft approaching.

Before the Japanese landing, the British had fortified the narrow beaches and islands with land mines, barbed wire and pillboxes.

Colonel Masanobu Tsuji in his book wrote, “The enemy pillboxes, which were well prepared, reacted violently with such heavy force that our men lying on the beach, half in and half out of the water could not raise their heads.”

True enough, the defence was working well, at least in the beginning. The Japanese casualties in the first and second waves were heavy.

While there were some progress, the British forces were not able to completely wipe out the landings on the beach.

Air attacks

Camouflaged A6M (Zero) fighter aircraft of 22 Air Flotilla, Japanese Navy, on airstrip at Kota Bharu. This unit flew into Kota Bharu from South Vietnam and operated along the East Coast of Malaya including flying “top cover” for the successful Japanese air attack on the British war ships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. Credit: Public Domain.

The moment it was confirmed that the Japanese had attacked, the British air force at Kota Bharu received permission to launch an attack.

The first wave of seven aircraft made the initial attack at 2.10am. These aircraft continued to drop bombs on the Japanese until 5am.

All the Japanese transports were repeatedly hit at this time. Colonel Tsuji wrote, “Before long enemy planes in formations of two and three began to attack our transports, which soon became enveloped in flame and smoke.”

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Despite the strong defense, the Japanese had three full battalions ashore at Kota Bharu by 10.30 that morning.

The British forces who were forced to retreat, fled the Kota Bharu airfield without destroying anything. This action left the Japanese invaders a fully working airfield along with fuel and ammunition.

At the same time, the Japanese troops also landed at Patani and Singora on the south-eastern coast of Thailand.

With this, the landings at Kota Bharu allowed the troops to proceed to the eastern side of the Malay peninsula. Meanwhile, the troops in Thailand advanced down the western side.

Bachok Beach, Kota Bharu, Malaya. 1941-07. Local fishing boats (perahu) pulled up on the beach, possibly at one of the points where the Japanese invasion troops landed on 1941-12. (Donor E. Cooke-Russell). Copyright expired.

The local villagers’ experience

A group of 30 local villagers came across the Japanese forces during the invasion.

They tried to escape but the Japanese ordered them to dig trenches and stay inside to avoid getting shot in the gunfire exchange.

The locals had to dig the holes in the sand with their hands. Overwhelmed with fear, they stayed in the trench for three days.

When they finally came out from it, they found about 380 dead Japanese soldiers.

The Japanese then cremated their dead comrades.

They stayed in the areas for about two weeks before moving to other locations. The Japanese reportedly did not cause any problems for the locals taking away their livestock.

Only three villagers reportedly died during the attack at Kota Bharu.

The aftermath

As for the British and Japanese troops, there is no official death toll. For the Japanese, they suffered an estimated 300 deaths and 500 wounded. The British casualties and losses were estimated at 68 fatalities, 360 wounded and 37 missing.

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Regardless, the attacks on Kota Bharu were one of the most violent battles of the whole Malayan Campaign.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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